Dorothy Crenshaw May 31, 2024 | 01:21:35
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5 Trends Shaping The Future Of PR (And How To Manage Them)

For PR teams, there’s never been a time of greater opportunity. But with opportunities come risks and challenges.  Among the excellent content at the PROI 2024 Global Summit in Rio de Janiero was a gem of a panel on the top trends shaping the work we do, and a discussion of how we might meet or take advantage of them. We heard from Laura Minskere of Mediju Tilts, Andrew Cross of Walker Sands, Kristina Laco of Communications Office Colic Laco & Partners, with skillful moderation by Randall Kirsch of Jackson Spalding. Here are key points made by the panel as well as my own takes.

“A world without truth”

Misinformation is everywhere, and given the expansion of AI tools, it’s bound to grow, with ever more authentic-seeming results. As a panelist mentioned, WPP CEO Mark Read was recently the target of a deepfake video scam that used AI to simulate his voice in an effort to get a potential partner agency to fund a new venture. Luckily, the scam was foiled, but it won’t be the last time hoaxers try something like this. So, what’s a PR person to do?

First, it’s our obligation – as independent agents and on behalf of clients – to operate within stringent ethical guidelines. We need to be not only honest, but clear and transparent, and our actions must match our words.

Generative AI is the elephant in the room. As communicators, we must help clients maximize its upside and mitigate its risks. We should advise businesses on the systems and processes needed to monitor and detect misinformation. At the same time, it’s crucial for organizations to quickly validate information and be prepared to respond. Not every unflattering video is a deepfake, and not every errant social post is a hack.

Using our communications expertise, we can guide leaders on the best ways and times to respond to misinformation. By pre-identifying and designating spokespeople and content distribution channels, clients will be prepared with a plan to share timely and accurate information when appropriate.

Polarized politics

Today, it feels like everything is political. A well-meaning brand can adopt a position on a social issue in good faith and find itself on the firing line. How to advise clients? How to stand out when standing out can risk backlash?

The panel members pointed out the importance of getting in front of topics, communicating clearly, and acknowledging nuance. Most importantly, articulating a position should be about communicating an organization’s values, not political issues or candidates.

As I’ve outlined in previous posts, a corporate position on a social issue should be part of a fully developed plan, never a knee-jerk response to an event or question.

Moreover, it’s always wise to prepare for backlash, even for a moderate position. If criticism doesn’t come, you’ve only lost the time invested to protect your reputation.

Most importantly, stay the course. Too many brands pull back when criticism comes, which tends to alienate everyone.

Finally, tap allies and advocates.  Allies are like money in the bank, and like wealth, they take time to accumulate. Smart comms teams build these before they’re needed.

Labor v Capital

Worker interest in joining a labor union is at its highest point in decades. Some 67% of Americans approve of unions, especially millennials and Gen Z. We’ve seen the impact of labor actions on brands ranging from Disney and Starbucks to Ford and General Motors.

The shift demands updated labor relations practices and a more integrated approach involving PR and communications teams. Panelists point out the power of employees as storytellers, and the impact their experience can have on corporate and brand reputation. An organization must demonstrate its commitment to workforce well being and development, and be ready for changes. There are other steps that smart communicators can take as well.

Understand the power of first-person storytelling by employees on social platforms like TikTok and Instagram. These types of narratives can harm corporate reputation and complicate labor negotiations, but when authentically positive, they can boost reputation.

Communications execs should adopt a long-term approach to worker engagement and ensure open channels of communication to help deter rumors and misinformation. We can also help HR, legal, and operations units understand the potential negative perception of “union-busting” tactics. This understanding is vital in a landscape where employees can easily share their experiences publicly.

Crucially, early involvement of CCOs is beneficial when it comes to decisions on executive compensation and other policies often highlighted during labor actions.

“Infinite” Media

As traditional media has declined, new outlets and platforms have sprung up. Yet, audiences are shrinking. How can communicators manage their programs given such media fragmentation?

First, PR teams need to know how to discern between high-level, high-domain-value media outlets with large reach and those that are less useful. Then, we can prioritize amplification of prestige earned media results in channels like paid social media or in direct marketing.

Increasingly, what we call PR programs need to include multiple channels and platforms so that we maximize engagement with high-value customers, prospects, and influencers across social, direct, owned, and traditional media.

Most interesting to me, some agencies report they’ve expanded their digital footprint through generative AI platforms like ChatGPT by seeding (non-confidential) agency insights and information on the platform so that the agency brand comes up more readily.

Tech-enabled PR

This one obviously overlaps with everything else on the list, starting with misinformation. The PROI panel members had excellent practical advice for PR teams. Laura Minskere advises agencies to invest a set amount of time, e.g. 6-8 hours per  month, for digital training. Other partners have established committees or processes to determine which tools to buy “off the shelf” and which to build. Clearly, technology offers a huge opportunity but it can be overwhelming.

Set priorities. Every organization needs a blueprint for establishing the value of a tech tool or platform to determine its scalability and the benefits of adoption.

Get internal buy-in. The biggest barrier to transformative value may be in getting your highly experienced people to engage with GenAI to reimagine the way they work. Provide incentives for innovation. When people redefine their roles with AI, reward them with new and greater opportunities.

Trial and adapt. PWC advises clients to license private versions of publicly available tech tools and models that may be customized and scaled for specific needs. At Mod Op, that’s our approach. Our AI Council has done the heavy lifting of setting up critical pillars of ethics; compliance and governance; and proper use and standards.  With those pillars in place, we can move on to methodically trialing products to determine benefits and processes before they’re widely adopted (or adapted) by Mod Op teams.

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